Musical memory and hippocampus revisited: Evidence from a musical layperson with highly selective hippocampal damage

Cortex. 2019 Oct;119:519-527. doi: 10.1016/j.cortex.2018.12.023. Epub 2019 Jan 29.


The role of the human hippocampus for musical memory is still unclear. While imaging studies in healthy humans have repeatedly shown hippocampal activation in musical memory tasks, studies in musicians with chronic bilateral medial temporal lobe damage and in non-musicians suffering from neuro-degenerative diseases suggest that musical memory may at least partly be independent of hippocampal integrity. Here, we report on a musical layperson who acutely developed an amnesic syndrome in the context of autoimmune encephalitis. Structural and resting state functional MRI revealed exceptionally selective bilateral lesions of the hippocampi and altered functional connectivity with retrosplenial cortex and precuneus. Neuropsychological testing showed a severe global amnesic syndrome. Perception and processing of scales, melodic contours, intervals, rhythms and meter were unaffected. Most notably, the patient performed completely normally on tests of recognition memory for unfamiliar melodies and excerpts of complex musical material, while recognition memory for visual and verbal information was severely impaired. Likewise, emotional evaluation of musical excerpts did not differ from controls. We infer that integrity of musical processing and recognition memory in patients with hippocampal dysfunction does not result from training-induced or post-lesional brain plasticity, but rather reflects integrity of brain networks outside the hippocampi and presumably also outside retrosplenial cortex and precuneus. Our findings suggest major differences in the neural substrates of musical and non-musical recognition memory.

Keywords: Amnesia; Hippocampus; Musical memory; Recognition memory; Temporal lobe.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Music / psychology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology*